Astounding Stories of Super-Science July 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. VOL. VII, No. 1 - The Hands of Aten
By H. G. Winter
The sleek black monoplane came scudding out of the south, flying low over fields of ice and snow that were thawing slowly under the heat of the arctic sun. After a long time it wheeled, circled gradually, and then, as if it had found what it had been looking for, came lightly down and skidded to a graceful halt in a low flat area between some round-topped hillocks. A fur-clad figure emerged from the enclosed cockpit and climbed a low ridge into the wan sunlight above.
Out of solid ice Craig hews three long-frozen Egyptians—and is at once caught up into amazing adventure.
For a while the man looked around, getting his bearings. Miles on every side stretched the great rough plains of ice—ice that became a broad path of glittering diamonds where it led toward the low-hung sun, far in the south. Perhaps a quarter mile in that direction lay the white rise of a hill much larger than its fellows, probably, the man thought, a volcano. Towards it he laboriously made his way. His tiny figure was only a speck on the far-flung, deserted landscape—a human mite, puny and futile against the giant, hostile white waste.
The sky was clear and cloudless, the sun unusually warm. So warm, indeed, that long clefts, caused by the unequal expansion of the ice, appeared here and there. The man from the plane had not gone more than fifty yards when he halted sharply. With a crack like thunder, a cleft had opened at his very feet—a rift ten feet deep in places, apparently bottomless in others, and very long. Not wanting to go around it, he slid down one side and, with an ice pick, started to hack a foothold in the opposite bank.
It was then that the man saw the thing—something sticking from the ice just above his head. As he stared at it, amazement appeared on his bronzed face. He looked around bewilderedly, then peered still more closely into the bluish depths of the crystal wall.
The head of a spear was jutting from the ice. And the spear was held by a man entrapped within the wall.
The details of the ice-held figure were but slightly blurred, for it was only a few feet from the surface. It was that of a man, and it was plain that he was not an Eskimo. He was locked in a distorted position, as if caught unawares by a terrific weight of sliding snow. And he had been caught, seemingly, when in the act of hurling his weapon.
For a long time the man from the plane peered at his discovery. Then his blue eyes followed slowly the direction in which the spear was pointing, and he gasped, and took a few quick steps further down the cleft. There, in the opposite wall, were two more bodies.
These, though, were of man and woman. They were even closer to the surface of the ice. Crouched over, the man's left hand was craned as if to protect his companion from some peril—from the cataclysm that had trapped them, it might have been. Or perhaps from the spear of the other.
The fur-muffled figure stood motionless, gazing at them. His ice pick was held limply, his eyes were wide. Then, suddenly, the pick was grasped firmly, and flakes of ice flew under its level blows as he started to carve his find from their frozen tomb.
The man was trembling with wild excitement when at last the stiff form of the woman was extricated. She was not so much a woman as a girl, really—and she was beautiful. But the man from the plane evidently didn't care so much about that; nor even her almost miraculous state of preservation. He rubbed away some of the coating of ice from her face, and stared most intently at her forehead. Then he stood upright, and said, simply:
"Well, I'll be damned!"
If Wesley Craig had been merely what he was listed as on the roster of the Somers Arctic Expedition of 1933—that is, a geologist—he would not have been so astounded. But his life work, really, was archaeology. He had spent years delving in the ruins of ancient temples, especially, those of old Egypt. He knew the ancient language as well as anyone knew it, and was familiar with every known detail of the civilization of the Pharaohs. And, being so, he was now properly confused. For every bit of his knowledge told him that this girl, whom he had found in the wastes of the arctic, was of Egyptian stock.
A certain tiny hieroglyph traced on her smooth forehead—the intricate band around her fine hair—the very cut of the frozen robe she wore—Egyptian—every one of them!
Yet, stubbornly, Wesley Craig wouldn't admit it. Not until he had cut the two men from the ice and hauled all three laboriously up the side of the cleft and stretched them out on the level ice, did he have to. He couldn't deny it, then. In some mysterious way, Egypt was connected with the three rigid bodies.
There, however, the similarity between the two ended. The one with the spear was big-muscled and burly; the other much slighter of build. This latter, Craig guessed, had been fleeing with the girl when icy death had overwhelmed them.
But he did not then try to go into that, the story that some sudden cataclysm had cut short. His fervor, as an Egyptologist, was afire. He was burning with eagerness to get these bodies back to the main base of the Somers Expedition, some three hundred miles south. Into the learned circles of Egyptology, of archaeology, they'd throw a bomb-shell that would make nitroglycerine seem like weak tea.
Craig couldn't taxi his plane closer; he would have to carry them to it; and to do this he began to carefully massage all the larger pieces of ice from the girl's limbs and clothing, to make her lighter. At the Somers base they could all be re-frozen, to maintain their perfect preservation.
It was while he was diligently rubbing that he fully realized the girl's beauty. Delicate, cleanly cut features; fine, large eyelids; tiny, slender hands. Save for her icy pallor, she might almost have been merely asleep as she lay on the snow.
Wes Craig finished massaging the girl and then went on and did the same for the two warriors. For an hour he carefully and reverently released them from the reluctant fingers of their icy death, and he was a little tired from his exertions and his great excitement when at last he finished and stood erect, resting. But he did not stand quiet for long. A sudden gleam lit his eyes: a mad idea had come to him.
"Won't hurt to try!" he muttered excitedly, and the next moment his lithe figure was running over the slippery ice bank to his airplane, out of sight behind the nearby hillocks.
Wes Craig worked from a sub-base on his sole expeditions to chart the various mountains and ranges in the islands off north-east King Charles Land, within the Arctic Circle. He had only one partner, a mechanic, who stayed behind on his shorter trips. And therefore all manner of emergency devices were stowed in the cockpit of his plane: a tiny folding tent, an amazingly light sled, a large store of compressed food—and a large vial of Kundrenaline and a hypodermic needle.
Kundrenaline was still somewhat of an unknown quantity in 1933. Kund, the German, had developed it but a year before. The fluid was already standard beside the operating tables of the world's most modern hospitals, so valuable had its qualities proven to be. It had actually restored life after hours of death. A complex mixture of concentrated adrenaline and highly compressed liquid food, it gave a tremendous stimulation to the heart, at the same time providing the body with energy food to withstand the shock.
It was meant for emergency use on the Somers Expedition. But Wes Craig wasn't going to use it for that. He was going to use it for an experiment—a crazy experiment, he told himself. Fish—many forms of life—withstand freezing in solid ice without hurt. Human beings—? It wouldn't hurt to try, anyway, his mind kept repeating.
Fifteen minutes saw him back beside the rigid bodies, and kneeling over the girl. The sun had warmed her body somewhat, and the glistening rheum of frost had melted from all three. Hardly breathing from his suspense, Wes filled the needle's chamber full and plunged it into the firm white flesh just above the girl's silent heart.
And then his thoughts stopped.
"My God!" he said suddenly.
For a tide of faintest color had surged through the girl's wan cheeks. And her slim figure had stirred perceptibly on the sheet of ice!
"By heaven, she's coming to!" Craig muttered unbelievingly.
Pressing his ear to her chest, he detected a faint and labored beating of her heart, stirring from its cold sleep as the terrific stimulation jolted it back to life. The girl's eyelids flickered; a tiny sigh escaped her full lips. Craig took off his heavy parka and laid it over her. Trembling with tremendous excitement, he tore himself away from the miracle of re-created life, and strode to the body of the young man who was apparently her partner.
Again he administered the Kundrenaline. Then he went to his first discovery—the heavily built, powerful warrior whose spear had stuck out of the ice. The hypodermic was once more filled, and the fluid plunged into his body. Even as a faint moan came from the younger man, the warrior's heart started to beat.
Perspiring, breathing quickly, vial and needle still in his hands, Wes stood off and surveyed the three.
The girl's hands were moving fitfully; strange, racking gasps came from her throat. The other two were similarly affected. Almost frightened, held motionless by the weirdness of it, the American watched.
The heavily built warrior was tossing in a series of convulsions. His legs kicked out spasmodically, arms jerked and clenched, and the helmeted head rolled from side to side. Then the man lay still for as long as a minute; but, just as Craig was about to go to him, his legs tensed once again, and, staggering drunkenly, he got to his feet.
He looked around wildly, but did not see the dumbfounded Craig, for his eyes fell on the figure of the younger man. He too had risen, swaying on weak legs. And the girl was sitting up and staring at the two of them.
And then, grotesquely, preluded by a cry from the woman, the tragedy which death had once cut short was enacted out, there on the rough sheet of ice and snow.
The man with the spear fixed his eyes on the girl's young partner, raised his weapon, leveled it unsteadily, and tossed it weakly forward. The pointed end clipped its target and sent him reeling, with a thin trickle of slow blood running from his right shoulder. The girl staggered to her feet and ran between the two. But the big warrior's hand swept her aside, and a short sword leaped from its sheath at his waist.
Wes was stupidly staring, unable to move. The combatants were utterly unconscious of him. The younger one, painfully wounded, drew his own sword and swayed forward to meet his enemy.
The fight was grotesque. Both were weak, unsteady. The short swords stabbed slowly, missing by yards in their drunken course. Hatred was on the big man's dark face, and a fierce lust for blood. It was only when the weapons clashed loudly together that Craig came out of his daze.
"Stop!" he yelled, jumping forward. "Wait! Stop!"
All three turned and looked full at him. And then death, which had been banished for but a few minutes, swooped swiftly once more on the young man. While he stood peering, bewildered, at Craig, the huge warrior steadied his blade and drove it home through his unguarded chest. The man slid over the edge of the ice into the cleft below.
The girl shrieked again and went down to his fallen figure, while the victor waved his bloody sword aloft with a shout of triumph. Then, without hesitation, he leaped at the American.
Wes was taken wholly by surprise. He dropped the vial of Kundrenaline and the hypodermic, and he heard them crash and break at his feet as he fumbled for his automatic, in a holster at his belt. But the warrior was upon him. His crimsoned blade swung high, gleamed downward, and smote Wesley Craig square on the side of the head.
Lucky for him, the flat of the sword had been used—but it was enough. The American reeled under the terrific swipe. He had a last glimpse of two inflamed eyes, of a savage, contorted face; then the universal whiteness went black, and he fell, and the whole incredible scene passed from his consciousness....
Just how long he had remained unconscious, Wesley Craig had no means of determining. His head was hurting devilishly; for a moment he thought that his plane had crashed, and that he was lying in the wreckage. Then he tried to move his hands, and found that he couldn't. They were bound. His eyes opened.
He discovered that he was lying flat on the ice, hands tied behind his back. Somebody was moaning softly. It was the girl. She too was tied. Wes tried to sit up; and a hand grasped his shoulder tightly and yanked him to his feet.
The big warrior who had felled him, his bloody sword still in hand, stared closely at the American, and fingered his fur jacket curiously. Presently he muttered a few words in some strange tongue. When Craig did not reply, he again spat out the words, his dark brows bunching malevolently. And this time Wes understood part of what he said.
He was speaking ancient Egyptian!
That proved it. These three, who but half an hour before were dead and entombed in the ice, were Egyptians. Trying to cope with his returning bewilderment, Craig racked his brains for remnants of the difficult language. And finally said laboriously:
"Who—who art thou?"
A torrent of words broke from the warrior. Only a few were understandable.
"Shabako—Pharaoh Shabako!" And he repeated Craig's question: "Who art thou?"
The girl was sitting up now, and peering at the American. Her eyes were still tear-filled, for the dead body of the young man was at her side. She cried out a warning, and Craig caught most of it.
"Be careful, Stranger! He will slay thee as he slew Inaros!"
"Answer me! Who art thou?" repeated the warrior angrily. His patience was short; he played with the hilt of his sword.
"I come," said Wesley Craig slowly, groping for words, "from a far country. I found the three of you in this ice—dead. I brought thee back to life."
There was an astounded silence. Then the man who called himself Shabako deliberately cuffed his prisoner on the cheek. "Blasphemer!" he roared. "To claim the powers of the gods! Thou shall die for that! Yea, the ice entrapped me when I was about to slay the guilty Inaros—but our mighty god Aten restored me to life! Enough! The priests shall deal with thee!"
He jerked the trembling girl to Craig's side, and with a prick of his sword in their backs made them go forward. The American was too bewildered to think evenly. Why, the god Aten was the Sun God!—the divinity Egypt worshipped in five hundred B.C.? How had these warm-blooded people come to the far north? Where did they live? And what fate lay in store for him?
He felt none too optimistic about his position. He knew that it would be two weeks before Somers, at the main base, would become alarmed at his absence. Unless, of course, the mechanic at the sub-base tried to beat his way back on foot, which was only barely possible.... Then he discovered that his automatic was still in its holster; it was slapping against his thighs; and he felt more hopeful.
The girl trudged tiredly at his side. Shabako was a few feet behind, grumbling and urging his captives along.
"Where does he drive us?" Craig asked softly. "What is thy name—and why did he slay thy companion?"
Her frightened eyes slanted towards his face. "To the Temple of the Sun God, Stranger," she whispered. "And there—" She broke off, to get control of the emotion she was feeling.
"The God's awful hands!... Taia is my name. I do not know how I am once again alive, when a short while ago I was dead—but it matters not. I am a priestess of Aten, a virgin of the Temple. Inaros, he—he who lies behind—dared to love me. But a few hours gone he committed sacrilege, hiding in the Temple, so he could watch me. Pharaoh Shabako chanced on him, threatened death to us and pursued us out here. And then of a sudden, when Shabako was hurling his spear, we were entrapped ... and died...."
It was a strange story of forbidden love, one that might have been enacted in age-old times beneath the shadows of the pyramids. Craig began, "How did—" but a harsh voice cut his question short.
"Silence, infidel! Stir thy feet! This ice cools my blood!"
The American's plane, hidden from view behind the hillock, was left farther and farther in the rear, and Wes was surprised to find that he was being driven up the very slopes of the ice-covered hill he had come to investigate.
At the top, he saw that the hill was a volcano, as he had guessed. There, in the center, was a wide gaping hole from which, in past ages, fiery streams of lava and ashes had belched forth. He was amazed to see that rude steps had been hacked in one side of the great cleft, and that they led sharply downwards. A faint warmth reached him, and he observed that there was but little ice in the crater cup, and none on the rocky walls where the hewn steps led down. It was here that these warm-blooded people lived!
As soon as Taia reached the steps she began to descend them, but Craig wasn't so docile. He told himself that this was his last chance; once below, surrounded by numbers, there might be no opportunity to strike for freedom. His eyes narrowed as he groped for a plan. If he could butt his brawny captor, strike him fairly in the solar plexus, and, while he lay helpless, cut his bonds with the sword....
He whirled around. Reverting to football tactics, he tensed his lean, hard body and plunged squarely at Shabako.
The Pharaoh was taken completely by surprise, and went sprawling; but the sword did not pitch from his hand. He had received a stiff, shrewd blow, but only a glancing one, for he had twisted his body at the last second. Now, sputtering with wrath, he scrambled to his feet and whipped back his blade for a killing slice at the American.
It was Taia who saved him, then. In a flash she threw herself against the sword arm and deflected the sweep.
Shabako's face was livid with wrath; rage choked him; but he paused. The girl's aptly timed words had told. He was obviously not decided as to what to do. There was a pause, while the sword pointed straight at Craig's chest; then, grumbling, the Egyptian let down his weapon.
"But try no more of thy tricks, dog!" he said harshly. "Else thy death come before its time!"
Taia glanced appealingly at Wes. Her eyes were half-frightened. Craig smiled wryly. "Lead on!" he said.
Years of time fell away with each of their descending steps. Egypt stirred under the dust of the centuries; Egypt lived again, though in a sad mockery of her former glory. It was like a descent into a new world, yet a world that was, at the same time, as old as man's civilization....
Fifty or more steps they trudged down, then came suddenly to two dark corridors, both of which slanted steeply into the bowels of the earth. The one they took was mystic with deep shadows thrown by flaring oil lamps, cunningly imbedded in the walls of rock; and immediately into Wes's mind came the memory of a corridor he had once walked through in old Egypt, a corridor that pierced to the heart of a pyramid and the somber vault of a mummy who had once been revered as the Pharaoh Aknahton. In his nostrils now there seemed to be that same, musty, age-old smell; the same hushed gloom was about him; his eyes saw dimly on the walls the same rows of hieroglyphs telling of long-past deeds of warriors and priests.
But there the similarity ended. In Egypt it had been a dead Pharaoh; here, though even yet he could hardly believe it, a living one—living by grace of modern science—walked warily behind him, and a living virgin of the temple at his side. The sword of the Pharaoh was pricking his back.
The passageway they trudged down became one of many. Others angled from it frequently, all dark, all hushed, all seemingly devoid of people. The volcano—extinct, almost surely, for the warmth was only that of the earth—was honey-combed with corridors. The marvelous ingenuity of the Egyptian race had come into play in fashioning this warm home in the barren arctic wastes. But Craig's ever-alert eyes warned him of what was to come. The characters, the hieroglyphs, the rude forms of Egyptian gods on the jagged walls were of degenerate character—and always, when degeneration sets in, the cruellest form of worship has been chosen. The worship of Aten, the Sun God, Wes recalled, was one that demanded human sacrifice....
Still they went down. Savage crevices, split in the days when the volcano roared with fire and gushing lava, were skirted; crude ladders reached down ever-recurring pits, beneath which there was always another corridor, and always leading down. Craig could not reckon the depth they must be at; he knew that the heat was growing, though, and that his skin was wet with perspiration beneath his furs. He started to ask Taia the question that ceaselessly tormented him—how her race had come to the arctic; but a prick from Shabako's sword silenced him.
Then the passageway they were in widened. There was a bend just ahead. Through the gloom came the sonorous chant of many voices.
"The Temple!" whispered Taia.
They turned the bend, and saw, ahead, lit by a thick cluster of oil lamps which threw a broad swathe of yellowish light, two tall columns of corrupt Egyptian design. They framed the entrance to the Sun God's Temple. The full volume of a chant of worship from inside poured through them.
Shabako's sword brooked no pause. He drove his prisoners straight through.
A host of impressions thronged Wes's bewildered eyes: a huge, misty-dark room, columns lining it—the vague form of a great idol squatting at the far end, massed people bowed before it—a weird chant rising into murmuring echoes along the high, dim ceiling. There were priests standing rigidly in front of the idol, their hands stretched high; and every eye was upon them. None saw the three in the doorway until a roar split the drone of worship.
"Way! Way for thy Pharaoh, Shabako the Fourth!"
Shabako had stepped for the moment in front of his prisoners. His sword blade was waved aloft; his bawl rudely interrupted the ceremony. The chant stopped, and silence fell as the priests whirled around. The worshippers, too, turned and stared at the man who had broken the service with his imperious command.
"Way!" the vibrant voice cried again. "Aside for thy Pharaoh, who returns to the shrine of Aten, Father of Life!"
Some sixty bewildered faces peered at the man. The silence of the buried Temple was solid, awesome. Through the mist of wreathing incense-smoke and heavy shadows the giant head of the idol stared down, cruel in the coldness of the rock it had been chiselled from.
But a pathway cleared in the thick of the crowd, and, without a glance to either side, Shabako's proud figure strode down it, driving his prisoners before him.
Craig heard low gasps of astonishment, glimpsed the people fall back as he walked forward, saw the amazement in their eyes. The statue of the god seemed to grow as he neared the altar; it was in squatting posture, with hands outstretched, one above the other. The American was to learn the reason for that position later. Now he had only a fleeting impression of it, for a man stepped from his ceremonial position beside the god's feet and met Shabako halfway.
His face was thin and cunning, with slanted rat's eyes. Ornate head-dress and stiffly inlaid robes denoted him to be the High Priest. He held a claw-like hand high.
"Hold!" he bade shrilly. "Who art thou to come thus into the Temple, calling thyself Shabako—Shabako, who has been dead these twenty years?"
The words were a thunderbolt of surprise, both to the Pharaoh and Taia, and to Wes Craig. He could not see Shabako's face, but he saw his tall form pause, and his tensed muscles relax.
"Dead ... these twenty years?" the Egyptian at last repeated slowly, struggling to overcome the shock. "Why, 'twas but a few hours ago that I left this Temple, in pursuit of—" He peered at the priest's sly face. "Who art thou?" he demanded suddenly.
"Hrihor, High Priest of Aten."
Craig heard the girl whisper something, inaudible because of her surprise, but Shabako's bewildered voice cut in:
"Hrihor! It cannot be! Thou art not Hrihor! When last I saw Hrihor, he was an under-priest of twenty. Ay was High Priest of the Temple! Call him! Where is Ay?"
"Dust," said the priest. "Dust these ten years and more."
Wes's senses were reeling. The bodies in the ice—he had taken it for granted they had only lain there for days; a week at most. That they had been entrapped for twenty years was incredible. Had he known that, he would not even have thought of using the Kundrenaline. Twenty years ago he had been a boy of eight; it meant—Lord!—it meant the youthful girl beside him was twice her age; and Shabako an old man! Old—yet young! Fantastic, unimaginable—yet true!
He saw Shabako pass a hand over his face, as if his body were suddenly tired; but the next moment it tautened again and he swung around. His face was unreadable. A multitude of conflicting emotions struggled there. He strode to a group of several of the older men.
"Look at me!" he cried, facing them squarely. "Look well at my features! Am I not he who twenty years ago—as the High Priest says—pursued the priestess and her lover into the land of ice? Am I not the man who ruled thee? Am I not Shabako? Is this not the priestess, Taia?"
They stared at him. Remembrance suddenly gleamed on their faces. A thin, cracked voice shrilled:
"Yea! Thou art Shabako! Thou art Shabako as he was twenty years ago—old, yet without the lines of age on thy brow! And the priestess—well do I remember her. That is she!"
A hand pointed at the trembling girl; all eyes centered on her. The High Priest's mouth dropped open, and he believed.
Then Shabako breathed deeply, drew himself up and with kingly dignity faced the ranks of his people, sword again held imperiously aloft.
"Thou hast seen!" he cried. "Thou hast heard! Here is the guilty Taia—and here am I, returned to thee, still with the strength of my prime! As I was about to slay the rash Inaros, the ice entrapped us, and for twenty years we lay thus, while my spirit pursued those two guilty ones across the River of Death. Then Aten aided me, filled my veins with His holy fire and melted the ice from our bodies. We lived and breathed again. With His divine help I slew Inaros and brought the transgressing virgin back to the Temple. Twenty years have passed—but of years Aten thinks nothing. Give praise to our God!"
A breathless silence swallowed his shout. Then a mighty roar burst out, an exultant roar that soared up past the impassive image of the god and rolled in thunderous echoes along the roof. "Praise to Aten! Praise to Aten!"
Wesley Craig smiled wryly. He could hardly credit the Kundrenaline's power in wiping twenty years away; but it was evidently true. Shabako, he saw, really believed the superstition-conceived story he had just spun, so—now what?
The High Priest was staring at him malevolently, his slanted eyes fastened on his garb of furs. His weedy voice pierced through the echoes.
"O divine Shabako," he questioned shrilly, "who is this stranger?"
The Pharaoh's glance was contemptuous. "A blasphemer," he said harshly. "One who dares claim—"
But Wes had understood the question. He stepped forward. Frankly and simply, he told his story.
"I found thy ruler and the maid and her lover in the ice, entrapped," he concluded. "I cut them out and, with a fluid which is of common knowledge in my country, restored them to life. I told this to Shabako, but he overpowered me and—"
"Hear thou!" bawled the Pharaoh, furiously breaking in. "Blasphemy! He claims the might of the God! Back, dog, lest I kill thee here myself!"
Wes saw how hopeless it was; he shrugged and stepped back. He read all too plainly the hatred in Shabako's eyes; his frank story had also apparently inflamed the High Priest against him. There was not a friend in the whole Temple, save the girl—and the next moment Hrihor walked to her.
His slanted eyes ran over her figure. A sneering smile appeared. "So!" he observed mockingly. "Taia is returned to the Temple! Yes, well do I remember thee now—the scornful cast of thy mouth, the proud bearing of thy head. Even Aten thou were scornful of, I remember. Aten remembers too!" He turned slightly. "Listen, O Shabako. Three days ago thy elected successor, Siptah, died. We had met to choose a new ruler. But, by the will of the God, thou art returned and art again Pharaoh. Thy people are grateful to Aten. In twelve hours a sacrifice shall proclaim our gratitude." His crafty eyes again swung to the girl. "There!" he shrilled, "—she pays for her sin. She is the sacrifice!"
There was a great shout from the crowd, but the words that Shabako then cried savagely were plainly audible to Wes Craig.
"Aye. Taia. O High Priest—and the blasphemous stranger, too! Both shall die in the hands of Aten!"
The priest nodded, smiling cruelly. "'Tis well, Shabako. Both shall die!"
Taia's frightened eyes met Craig's, then lifted to the form of the idol. He too peered up at it, and for the first time its hideousness and the cold-blooded cruelty of its design struck him.
The rudely carved figure was a full forty feet high. The impassive face, horrible in the lifelessness of rock, stared unseeingly down on its worshippers. One gross black hand was held some ten feet above the palm of the other, and, inserted in its palm, was a long, keen-pointed blade. The living sacrifice would be tied to the lower palm; the upper, by some trickery, would be made to slowly descend....
A surge of panic swept over Craig. In his mind he saw the slight, helpless form of the girl strapped to that grim paw, saw the knife inch down, saw it touch and prick and finally drive through her heart. And it would be the same for him! A flame of blind fury burst in him, making him reckless; mad.
"The hell we die!" he yelled, in English, and with a great bound he was at Taia's side. A priest leaped for him, but Craig shot a foot out and sent him sprawling. Then, with eyes flaming and legs outthrust, he stood in front of the girl, facing the worshippers.
"Fools!" he roared. "Listen to me! My words are truthful! I do not lie, as does thy Pharaoh! I can prove that which I say! I can—"
"Take him!" the High Priest shrieked. "Forward! Take him!"
Craig could handle one or two, but not a dozen. A mass of men, women, soldiers, priests, swept at him. There was a brief moment of struggle, of oaths and shouts and excited yells from the crowd in the Temple, till something thudded into the American's head and he went down. Feet trampled him; men surged over him; then blessed unconsciousness en-wrapped him, and he knew no more.
He did not hear, as did Taia, Shabako's command:
"To a chamber with them! Guard them well, till the time of sacrifice!"
A small party, led by the stocky figure of the captain of the Pharaoh's guard, wound its way through a network of corridors, past jagged walls down which water slowly dripped, across a swaying bridge of hides that spanned an awful chasm in the volcano's very heart, and came at last to a large dark hole in the rock.
The captain turned. "In there!" he commanded harshly. The two figures, man and girl, were dumped like sacks of flour into the gloomy chamber. The men who had carried them turned and tramped away; the captain faced one who had stayed.
"Guard them with thy life, Sitah. Thou knowest the payment for carelessness."
Sitah nodded grimly. He was fully armed, with spear and sword. He sat down outside the dark hole, and the captain retraced his steps. The pad of his feet on the floor died away, and then, for a long time, there was silence.
Perhaps every five minutes Sitah turned and stared down into the hole behind, ears craned for the slightest sound. But none came. The two inside, no doubt, were asleep.
It was very hot, down in the deep-buried corridor, and though Sitah was accustomed to the heat, he soon found his eyelids drooping and his whole body crying out for sleep. But he did not go to sleep. He knew too well what would befall him in Aten's hands if he did. He had seen many old men and women die in those hands, on ceremony days—old people who croaked in helpless agony as the keen knife blade dropped slowly down toward them, paused a second, inches from their hearts, and then plunged in with a rush. Old men and women, useless, their years of service gone. Yes, and many unwanted girl children....
That was what the Sun God demanded. His hands reached ever for human bodies. It was cruel, but he was a god; and who was to question the will of a god?
Sitah was very glad when, after six hours of lonely vigil, another guard relieved him and took his place outside the dark hole. Sitah spoke humorously to him, a grim kind of humor, as befitting one who has seen much death.
"They sleep, Hapu," he said, nodding into the prison. "But soon a longer sleep will come for them—the sleep of the knife!" He chuckled as he made his way far below, to his bed. A few hours of rest and he would be in fine fettle for the ceremony.
The relieving guard grunted and peered into the cell. He saw two dark figures outstretched, mere blobs of black, a little blacker than the shadows. Yes, they slept....
He sat down on the bench Sitah had just vacated. He had four hours to wait. Then the priests, led by Hrihor, would come, and the ceremony would begin, and the god's hands would move together. It would be a fine show! He looked forward to it keenly. It would be delicious to see that girl Taia bared to the knife. It would please the god: seldom did his hands hold such a beautiful sacrifice. And the queer stranger, too—he would probably die very noisily. When he saw the knife sliding down, he would regret his blasphemy and shriek for forgiveness!
For along time Hapu sat quite motionless. He was a good watchdog. Hours passed; his vigil was nearing its end; the priests would soon come. Soon—
A slight noise came from the cell behind him.
He whirled around. The noise came again, louder. A voice cried out.
"Water! Water! I am dying!"
Hapu grunted. It was the stranger's voice. The stranger must not die; it would spoil the ceremony; Aten would be wroth. He stared into the hole.
One of the figures was tossing, writhing painfully. The agonized cry echoed again. "Water! Please! I am dying!"
Hapu strode into the cell.
For a moment he stood still, peering down at the tossing figure. His brain suddenly shouted alarm. This was no human body! "What—" he began.
Out of the shadows, behind, a man emerged and bent down over the outstretched figure of the guard. A smile appeared on the man's lean face: the guard was out—cold. It took Wes Craig just a moment to ascertain this; then he tiptoed over to a dark form that lay on the floor—the girl, whose pale, anxious face peered up out of the shadows. Craig cut her bonds with the guard's sword and raised her to her feet. She stood close to him, clinging to him, trembling, almost not believing she was free.
Her eyes were filled with awe as she looked up into the American's eyes. "First thou didst restore me to life," she whispered, "and now thou hast broken thy bonds. Surely, thou must be a god!"
Wes smiled. "It was simple, Taia. Look! This buckle on my belt—'tis sharp. I edged it round and cut the rope. It was slow work, else we would have been free long before."
"But I saw thee toss and writhe on the floor, and cry out for water!"
Craig kicked a pile of furs that had been heaped one on top of the other, and tied together with thread from an unraveled woolen mitten. "This was my body," he said coolly. "Furs. The cell must be a storeroom for them—lucky for us. I was standing with a rock in my hand near the door, when I cried out for water.... We shall not die in Aten's hands, Taia! See—I have a sword. With luck—"
There was a warmer quality than reverence in Taia's eyes when she spoke—though she did not realize it. "Then come quickly, O Stranger!" she said. "The guard has been changed once; the time for sacrifice nears!"
Craig nodded. Only a sword was in his hand; his automatic, he found, had been taken from him while he lay unconscious in the Temple, probably desired as a curious heathen object. The discovery, made when he had cut his bonds, had been a serious blow to his hopes: with a sword, he was only a human being, but with a gun he might have passed as supernatural to this primitive race.
But it could not be helped. He peered to each side, gestured to the girl, and together they started up the sloping incline of the corridor.
The heat of the earth was great, down where they were, and it made the passageway muggy and odorous. Fitful shadows were flung by widely separated oil lamps as they pressed forward—grotesque splotches of black that half a dozen times tightened the American's grasp on his sword, sure that a guard had come upon them. He knew that their margin of time in which to effect escape was small, and he gradually quickened their pace, sacrificing caution for speed. Taia's hand was in his left; and he had just turned to her to ask if they were taking the best course up to the surface, when suddenly she stopped short.
"Hearken!" she whispered, frightened.
Wes craned his ears. For a moment there was nothing but silence. Then a faint sound trembled through the shadows. It could only have been that of many approaching footsteps.
"The priests!" Taia murmured, tightening her grip on his hand. "They come!"
There was a sharp bend in the corridor fifty feet ahead; from behind it a growing clatter of sandals echoed through the rock-walled passageway. Craig paused, irresolute. "Are we blocked, ahead?" he asked.
A shout cut her words short. Dim figures appeared around the bend in the passage. They were discovered!
Wes Craig's face set grimly; he worked his hand into a good grip on the sword handle, looked levelly at the gathering crowd ahead and said:
"I think it best to face them now, Taia. I can hold them for minutes at least; thou canst perhaps escape. Rest assured I shall take that High Priest with me, when I cross thy River of Death!"
"But where can I go?" cried the girl. "Nay, Divine One—I shall stay at thy side!"
The excited yells of Hrihor, urging the others forward, came plainly to their ears. Swords glittered in the gloom of the corridor, and like a foam-tipped wave that slowly gathers speed the group of priests and soldiers charged down on the man and girl. Craig saw that she would not run.
"Then come!" he shouted, and swung her around. With desperate speed they retraced their steps. They soon passed their cell, and recklessly leaped through the deceptive shadows on the far side, on down the corridor.
The High Priest and the others followed close behind. His crafty face was distorted with rage, and he kept screaming to his men: "The wrath of the God on thee if they escape!" Craig's ears caught that, and he found time for a bitter smile. If! If only they had left him his automatic! A few bullets flung into them would even matters a trifle.
The corridor twisted and slanted ever downward. They panted around a corner and came to the brink of a dark pit. "Down!" cried the girl. She led the way, nimbly dropping down the fifteen-foot rawhide ladder that was there. Halfway down the ladder Wes reached up with his sword and cut it from where it was fastened. He fell to the bottom of the hole with a grunt. As he extricated himself from the ladder's entangling meshes be yelled up, "Come and get us, you cutthroats—if you can!" and was off after the lithe form of the girl.
But the action helped them but little, and added only a few feet to the distance between them and their pursuers, for they boldly made the deep drop without sending for another ladder. Taia was sobbing for air, and Wes himself beginning to feel the bitter pang of hopelessness when they rounded a corner and came to a great chasm—a wide cleft in the very heart of the volcano. A terrific heat came from its maw of unbroken black, and a peculiar, choking odor, sulphurous. Across it was a slender framework of hides and thongs—a mere catwalk over the terrible depths below.
"You first!" Craig snapped, and as Taia started across a spear came hurtling from the mob behind, and clanked against the rocky wall on the far side. Nimbly Taia sped over the bridge, and Wes, the yells of Hrihor and his men loud in his ears, followed.
Midway a long spear snaked after him. It missed by inches, and went pitching into the gulf. In his haste he caught his foot on the interlaced thongs, stumbled and almost fell—which saved his life, for another spear streaked through the very spot he had been a second before. Then he was across, and his sword was flashing in vicious hacks at one of the two main supporting thongs of the bridge.
The hide was tough, but Craig's strength was that of a desperate man, and in several mighty strokes he severed it. The framework slumped to one side, held only by one thong. Hrihor, half across, croaked in sudden horror and sprang back as he saw the stranger raise his blade to carve through the other support. But even as the sword swept down a spear streamed from a warrior's hand and thudded against Wes's right shoulder.
His sword jarred loose. It fell into the chasm.
"Thou art hurt!" cried the girl. Wes grinned wryly.
"Nay," he said, "but weaponless. Lead on!"
They were now on the other side of the chasm in the tunneled volcano. The priests had hesitated a moment when the bridge had slackened; but now, seeing the weaponless man and girl disappear in a tortuous corridor ahead, they sidled across the damaged catwalk after their fierce leader.
"They will go past the Temple!" Hrihor shrilled. "It is Taia who leads him: again she tries to escape to the land of ice! Follow—up here!"
His words were true. The corridor that led by the Temple was the one which led to the only other passage up to the crater of the volcano.
But Taia had guided Craig only a few steps past the place of worship, now a silent vault of impenetrable blackness when, turning a corner, the American felt her shrink back.
"Shabako comes!" she told him faintly.
Quickly he verified it. Led by the Pharaoh himself, a party of soldiers was coming down the corridor some thirty yards away. Even as Wes saw them, they saw him—and Shabako's roar of sudden alarm tingled his ears.
Priests behind, soldiers and the blood-lustful Pharaoh ahead. They were cut off, blocked, trapped. There was no nearby branch passage to run down; there was no way to turn. It was the end of the game.... But no, not quite, Craig told himself grimly. His sword was gone, but his fists would tell on them before he went down, before the paws of the idol finally claimed him....
He stepped before Taia, clenched his fists, and waited the shock of the charge.
He could see the fury in Shabako's narrowed eyes, so close were they, when a soft hand pulled him back. It was Taia's.
"Come!" she whispered, and darted swiftly back to the gloomy, shadow-filled entrance of the Temple. And wondering, Wes Craig followed.
She glided through the pillared portal and was immediately swallowed up by a shroud of silent, velvety darkness. Wes could not see her, but her soft hand touched his arm lightly to guide him forward, and he sensed the girl's warm body close to his. Where was she going? Inevitably they would be trapped in the far end of the Temple, beneath the very hands of the idol—or so he thought. But he trusted her, and went on.
A shout came from the entrance. "They went in here!" someone cried, and the two heard Shabako detailing swift instructions to his men—instructions which were cut short by another clatter of feet and the approaching voice of Hrihor. Priests and soldiers had joined, a confusion of men, most of them hanging back, half afraid to venture into the well of blackness that was Aten's abode on earth.
But the Pharaoh whipped them into discipline with the harsh tones of his voice, and strung them into a close line, to advance slowly through the Temple. "Have thy blades ready!" he added. "They cannot escape us now: they are trapped. Forward!"
Nothing could get through that line. It was like a fine-toothed comb, with every tooth a man. Craig saw it coming, and knew that he and the girl could not go much farther back, for already he sensed himself directly beneath the looming figure of Aten. Yet the gentle touch led him on—around and past the idol into the furthermost corner of the Temple. It was then that Taia paused, felt around, and placed Craig's right hand upon some unseen knob in the wall. Her faint whisper hurriedly explained the purpose of the knob as Wes drank in her words eagerly.
"There is a secret room behind the idol, from whence the priests ape the God's voice and move his hands at sacrifice. A priest should be there e'en now, ready for the ceremony. Thou must overcome him, Divine One, and we too can hide therein. Hrihor dare not search for us there while others are present, for e'en Shabako knows not of the room. Quick, then—they come! Thy hand is on the latch of the secret panel. I follow thee!"
Wes pressed the girl's hand tightly and his body tensed. Then, without hesitation, he jerked the secret panel back. A faint glow of light lay ahead, and he plunged into the tiny room that lay revealed.
An alarmed face stared up—the priest! Wes leaped at him, his steely fingers thumbing into the man's throat and throttling its scream to a gasping choke. All the American's pent-up fury went into a lunge that the priest could not begin to stand against. He was bowled sharply over and went down. Craig on top, and there the fight ended as suddenly as it had begun. The priest's head thudded into the smooth rock floor; a convulsion quivered his body; he moaned and lay still.
A grim flicker in his eyes, Craig got up and looked around for Taia. Then astonishment and cold fear swept through him.
The secret door was closed—but she was not inside!
"Now what—" Wesley Craig gasped.
He did not dare finish the thought. He glared around, much as a trapped tiger does, his brain a turmoil. His eyes fell on a ladder that led up from the floor to a niche in the left wall—a slit about forty feet high, a pool of darkness, shadowed from the thin tongue of flame that lit the room. Only half realizing what the slit was, Wes sprang forward and leaped up the ladder. A platform was built high up inside the niche, a place for a man to stand on. The American reached it, pressed himself forward, and peered through a tiny hole that was in the rock ahead. He knew it ought to command a view of the Temple.
But if it did, Craig could see nothing, for there was no light in the huge vault outside. For minutes the brooding silence was not broken, save by an occasional scraping sound made by one of the searching line of men. There was no hint of the girl who waited beside the hideous figure of the god, nor of the network that gradually closed in on her.
But suddenly the silence was shattered by a shout.
"I have her!" someone yelled. Then came a multitude of sounds. The piercing voice of Hrihor was audible above them all.
"Light the lamps! Hast thou the other, too?"
"Nay—he is not here."
"Not here? What—"
A spark of light made an erratic course from the Temple door: someone was bringing a flame to light the lamps. A moment later there was a flare of yellow light as the oil in a large wall lamp caught fire, and then the darkness melted further before a wave of light from the opposite wall. Now could be seen the warriors who, with gleaming outdrawn swords, were clustered around the girl. Shabako was gripping her arm and shaking her roughly: the High Priest was drawing to a stop before her, to stand glaring at her with hate-inflamed eyes.
"Tell us!" roared the Pharaoh. "Where is the man?"
She looked at him levelly. Her eyes were quite calm, and she breathed evenly. There was a glorious light in her eyes as she replied.
"I will tell thee," she said; "though thou wilt not comprehend. He vanished. Vanished, even as a god. He was here beside me, in the darkness and then suddenly he was gone. But why not? For he was a god...."
The soldiers gaped at her. Silence came down in the Temple. The High Priest did not break it, but only stared closely at the girl with eyes that suddenly had something more than hate in them—comprehension, and a trace of fear....
But the Pharaoh Shabako's eyes were only wrathful, and he shouted:
"A god? Vanished, sayest thou? Lies! Lies! But thou canst not lie to Aten! The God knows of a way to loosen thy tongue!"
Despite herself, Taia shuddered. She knew that way.
Gradually the Temple was filling with other worshippers come to see the sacrifice, and soon there were sixty or seventy of them. The men outnumbered the women two to one, and none of them was very old. Fifty was about their age limit—and those who were near this age were reluctant to let their eyes rest on the hands of the idol. When they did glance at them, and at the cruel knife blade in the upper one, fear showed on their faces. There were also very few children....
Hrihor's thin features grew unreadable in the coldness that settled upon them. He was now in the role of High Priest: apart, separate from the common mob before him; interpreter of Aten's divine mysteries: playing his part of one who listened to a god's awful whisperings. Impassively he superintended the binding of Taia by a priestess, who tightened the cords around the girl's slim body with claw-like hands, a gleam of unholy anticipation on her fleshless, soured face. Then the High Priest turned from the altar and faced the crowd of people.
"Silence!" he commanded. "Silence, before thy God Aten!"
A hush fell instantly. Their eyes centered on the bound figure of the girl, standing just beside the lowermost hand of the idol that would presently claim her. Her face was very pale, but none could detect fear in it. There was an uneasy stir, a shifting of feet, a mumbling, as her fresh young beauty struck the watchers. Somewhere a man muttered that she was very young to die. Aten had returned her once: perhaps the God did not wish her to perish.... His neighbor demurred. And the ceremony went on.
Ornate but crude censers were in the hands of two priests; the incense was lit by long tapers, and its acrid odor wound up in wavering purple spirals of smoke. On each side of Hrihor were five under-priests, eyes stiffly on their superior's impassive face. The soldiers had retreated from the altar and now were massed in the rear of the Temple, their spear blades glittering dully above their heads.
The High Priest raised his hands slowly, and stared with glazed eyes into the gloom of the ceiling, high above. "Praise!" he shrilled. "Praise to Aten!"
The assembled worshippers joined him in the chant of sacrifice. It was low and soft, and, at first, almost drowsy, like the slow stir of a tropical wind through palm leaves. But soon it quickened with rising tones from perfectly concerted voices; it soared up; its tenor changed; it became fierce, lustful, eager for blood, eager for the sacrifice, a heathen chant shrilling for sight of a girl's body in the god's, awful hands.
And it died in a sad, discordant moan on an expectant note....
Hrihor's body, stiff and rigid in its ceremonial robes, did not seem human as he stretched his arms straight forward and wheeled silently to the huge idol of stone. A full two minutes he stood without so much as flicking an eyelash; then, not shifting his glazed stare, he harshly intoned:
"Ages ago our ancestors set out from the homeland of Egypt in a great galley, bound for the barbarian countries of the north in quest of metal. But storms seized upon them, drove them far from their course, till at last, weak from hunger, they came to this land of ice, where their galley was wrecked and they were cast ashore. At first all was dark; then came the Sun God Aten's life giving rays, leading them to this mountain, which they inhabited and in which they carved this Temple wherein to worship the God who had saved them. The lord of the galley was the first Pharaoh; the priest of the galley was called High Priest; the Pharaoh took a concubine to wife—and thus was our civilization begun.
"There were virgins of the Temple, holy, set apart from man, sacred to Aten. Never did one betray her sacred trust—never, until Taia fled to the land of ice with the sacrilegious Inaros. Our mighty Pharaoh pursued them, and after twenty years, by Aten's special grace, slew the man and brought the maid back to pay for her transgression. Never before has this happened."
He paused, waiting. An under-priest spoke; evidently following some ritual.
"Here is the priestess, O High Priest of Aten! What penalty must she pay?"
"Death in Aten's hands!" the cold voice shrilled instantly. "The God wills it!"
But now came an interruption, unexpected and disconcerting to the well-laid plans of Hrihor. The voice of Pharaoh Shabako cried out:
"Another came with this priestess—a blasphemous stranger! He lies concealed; the maid will not tell where! High Priest, let her be tortured in Aten's hands until she reveals where he is!"
For a moment Hrihor lost his mask-like rigidity, of expression. His eyes shifted nervously. But Shabako was not to be denied. Again be repeated his demand.
"We must pray to Aten to make his hand descend on her, prick and gash her, till she divulges!"
A murmur arose from the people in the Temple: they approved the torture. Hrihor, obviously reluctant, was forced to comply.
"O mighty Aten," he cried, turning to the idol, "thou hast heard our Pharaoh. We pray to thee to lay thy hand on the priestess Taia, till she tells where the stranger lies concealed!"
Shabako nodded in approval. While a mumbled prayer rose, four priests strode to the girl, lifted her slight form and flung it on the upturned lower band of the idol. They strapped her there securely, her breast but ten feet below the waiting knife. Even then she did not struggle or cry out.
She did not know who had won the fight inside the secret room, but her heart told her it was the mysterious stranger, for was he not a god?—She would not be afraid, for he would surely reveal his divinity, and save her, even as he had from her twenty-year death, and from her bonds in the cell where they had been imprisoned....
The softly chanted prayer surged through the Temple. Hrihor's slitted eyes were on the knife in the upper palm of the idol. Suddenly he flung up his arms, and cried:
"Now, O Aten!"
The prayer stopped. With fearful interest the people stared at the dagger, at the inert figure of the girl—the more elderly seeing in her a hint of what was to come to them when their days of service were ended.
The knife started downward.
Taia's eyes were closed. Her breathing was even and regular. She did not seem at all aware of the shaft of steel that slowly, in the hushed gasp from the audience, stirred with the stone hand that held it and moved deliberately downward.
To the silent crowd of worshippers it was a religious phenomenon, and well calculated to strike fear and awe into their hearts. The moving idol seemed to be a living thing, motivated by the unseen spirit of the god it represented, who caused the massive upper hand to execute his will. Its movement was slow and clumsy, and close listeners would have heard a slight creaking noise from somewhere behind it—but the ears of the worshippers were deaf from the fear and the horror in which they were vicariously participating.
Slowly the hands came together, until the long, wicked shear was but a foot above the bound girl.... It dropped to within inches of her flesh....
And there it stopped.
Then, before the amazed crowd could realize what was happening, before even Hrihor could control the surprise that raised his brows incredulously, the palm in which the blade was implanted slowly retraced its course and returned to its original position.
A breathless silence reigned in the Temple. The hand was motionless. It did not stir again.
"The God will not touch his priestess!"
It was a faint, awed whisper that came from someone amongst the worshippers. But Hrihor heard it, and so did the other priests. While they stared at each other, utterly at a loss, the whisper was taken up and repeated on all sides.
"The God will not touch his priestess!"
The High Priest sensed the crowd's conviction, and sensed them turning against him. His beady eyes glanced around nervously. His lips a thin line, he called to his second ranking priest in a tense whisper, and, when the other came to him, muttered in his ear:
"'Tis the stranger, hiding in the secret chamber, who does this! He has overcome our brother there, and now controls the levers! And Taia knows it; and if she reveals it to the people our hold will be broken! She must be killed!"
"Yes! But how? We must be quick!"
Hrihor's crafty face set cruelly. "I know a way. Watch thou...."
He strode to the fore of the altar and flung his hands high. A shrill shout from his thin lips cut the uneasy murmuring short.
"Hearken! Aten will not torture His own priestess! He will not maim those who have sworn their lives to Him!"
The silent crowd waited for his next words. He screamed savagely.
"His High Priest must perform the rite! Aten has appointed me to be His instrument of vengeance!"
A gleam of unholy exultation was in his narrowed eyes. His face worked: he thrust a hand inside his ornate ceremonial vestment.
And he whipped a long blade from the robe.
Never before had such a ceremony been held in the Temple of Aten, the Sun God. Never before had the hand of the god paused above the living sacrifice and deliberately risen again without tasting blood. It was miracle upon miracle; half-bewildered, Pharaoh Shabako and the herd of common people alike waited for what would come next, their High Priest's savage words somewhat reassuring them that all was correct.
They saw him clench his dagger tightly and with slow steps advance to the side of the helpless girl. Glaring down at her, he swung the blade high. It poised directly over her heart. It would not torture her, Taia knew: it was death that she read in the High Priest's eyes. She closed her own, and thought of the stranger; she breathed a silent prayer to him. She waited.
"In Aten's name!" screamed Hrihor, and brought the dagger down.
At that second the sharp roar of a sudden explosion thundered through the Temple, and the startled worshippers saw, slowly trickling from the right eye of Aten, a curling streamer of gray smoke. They did not know what had happened. And not until, after a moment of fearful silence, they saw the expression on Hrihor's face change to great surprise, and saw his right hand relax and drop the dagger to the floor, did they comprehend that he had been struck down.
He clutched at his side, staggered, twisted round, and fell full length before the feet of the god whose representative he was.
A frightened woman close to the altar saw a dark red stain on his robe, and a scream from her lips pierced out:
"He is dead! Killed by Aten—whose eyes have looked death! Oh!"
She flung herself flat on the floor, and the others, back to the soldiers in the rear, did likewise. The priests clustered together in a scared group, staring fearfully at the right eye of the idol, from which a wisp of smoke was still trailing. None dared approach the outstretched figure of the High Priest. Only Shabako dared look at him.
The Pharaoh clutched his sword tightly, muttering uneasily to himself. Not a sound came from the prostrate multitude. The slow echoes of the explosion died away; again the heavy silence fell. Then Shabako suddenly stared around, and peered up at the stone image of the god.
His ears had caught a sound. It was a panting and scuffling noise, as if men were fighting. It grew, even though muffled by apparently intervening rock. The beginning of a scream, cut short into a choke, added to its volume. The worshippers far back in the Temple heard it, and looked up. There was a muffled crash—then another crash of thundering noise, similar to the one that had come from the god's eye.
But this time no smoke eddied from the eye. The explosion echoed through the Temple and died away, while all the time Pharaoh Shabako stared at the idol. Slow comprehension broke through the bewilderment on his face. Suddenly he swung around and gripped the cowering form of the second ranking priest, who stood near him.
"From whence came those sounds, Priest?" he hissed. "Tell me!"
The frightened priest gibbered unintelligibly, but there was a guilty look on his face which spurred Shabako on. He shook the man and roared the question again. Then the priest spoke.
A gasp rose from the crowd behind. But before they could master their astonishment, Shabako had whipped his sword from its sheath and sprung up the altar.
"Show me this chamber!" he cried.
Up on the platform in the secret room, his eye glued to the hole that was the eye of Aten, Wes Craig had seen and heard everything that had transpired. He had been shocked to see the brave thing Taia had submitted to, rather than divulge where he was hidden. Sacrificing herself, so that he, a stranger, might have a few more minutes of life! It hurt.
He had climbed down from the platform and glared around the lower floor of the secret room again, scanning shelves that were crowded with scores of curious objects, sacred relics, properties to aid in the manipulation of the idol and other unidentifiable things—looking for a potential weapon. If the girl had to die—and he—it would be better to go out and meet his enemies, taking some of them with him in full fight.
And then his heart leaped madly at the sight of something lying on one of the shelves.
A stumpy black shape, it was, with a short barrel of cold blue steel, and it looked as much out of place in that chamber as did the fur-clad man who stared half-unbelievingly at it. It was a foreigner, as he was, in the gloomy corridors and chambers of the race that worshipped Aten. It too was American. It was a friend—his automatic!
To Wes Craig, bewildered and tired and sadly without hope, it almost seemed to be alive, smiling at him with its wicked round mouth. He picked it up, and it bolstered his courage, his hope and his energy enormously. At once he leaped to the closed entrance-door and felt for the lever that opened it. But there he paused a moment to think.
There was only the faintest chance of fighting free with Taia now. There were at least thirty men outside, and he had only seven bullets. And then he remembered where he was, and what the purpose of the secret room was. He remembered, also, a certain nervous expression on the High Priest's face that he had just seen....
He swung around and inspected the levers and crude wheels of wood that led to a handle up in the niche, shoulder-high to whoever might stand on the platform there. He had had experience with certain idols in Egypt. He remembered particularly one that had been worshipped in a degenerate age—its hands, its eyes. And then he stepped over the sprawling body of the still unconscious priest and climbed to the platform and his peep-hole again.
As he pressed himself forward in the niche, and applied his eye to the slit, he gently fingered the handle of the large lever right beside him. And he also measured the size of the slit in the right eye of the god....
Craig had not minded shooting the murderous High Priest Hrihor, but he did not want to kill the under-priest in the secret room. He had had no choice in the matter. At the tensest moment in the dramatic scene in the Temple, just when he had been hoping that the mysterious death he had sent to Hrihor would frighten the worshippers away, he had heard a slight rustling sound behind him, and had turned just in time to see a hate-distorted face within feet of him, and a short curved-knife upraised to strike him in the back. It was the priest, whom he had left unconscious below, now revived and coming to kill him.
Wes could have shot the man then and there, but he knew the thunder of his gun would betray his presence; so, using the weapon as a club he had struck out at his attacker and tried to block the thrust of the knife. For a moment he was successful; but the knife proved the better weapon in the close rough and tumble scuffle that ensued and, with its point at his very throat, Wes had been forced to shoot.
He had killed the man instantly, but he felt no slightest relief. Like a tiger—even before the crashing echoes had died away in the little room—he sprang back to his peep-hole to see what the effect was outside. And just what he feared most was happening. The frightened priest in the Temple was telling the suspicious Shabako about the hidden chamber—and even then was leading him to the secret entrance!
The two passed the American's line of vision, and after a moment he heard them fumbling at the catch of the panel. He could shoot them both down, easily, but there would still be a whole Temple full of warriors and priests to be faced with only three bullets!
Then, in a flash, came an inspiration.
Wes swung around, leveled the automatic's muzzle at the hole in the idol's eye, sighted carefully, and squeezed the trigger. And as the explosion boomed through the vast chamber outside, he veered the gun in a different aim and fired again and again.
The two huge oil lamps, imbedded one in each side wall, splintered and crashed.
"Now for it!" Wes Craig muttered. He sprang for the ladder, snatching the dagger of the dead priest as he passed, and half-slid, half-tumbled to the floor below. At once he was at the secret door and grasping the lever that worked it; and, pausing only to take a deep breath, he plunged out.
He came into a scene of wildest confusion. Panic-stricken screams rang in his ears; the oil from the cracked lamps, transformed into splatters of flame, had splashed down from the walls and scattered fire over much of the floor. A tumult of shadows moiled through the flames as the crowd fought to get free. Shrieks and gasps and curses cut through the air: the worshippers were caught up in a mob panic caused more by their superstitious frenzy than by the understandable fire. The flames pierced fantastically into the blackness, throwing a vivid glow on the frantic faces of the people who struggled to get out of their reach. The altar was deserted, save for the girl who still lay on the hand of the idol....
Wes Craig, a blur in the wavering shadows, darted to her side. His dagger sped through the cords that bound her, and he lifted her slight form down. For a moment she clung to him.
"I knew thou wouldst come, Divine One!" she whispered. "I knew!"
He smiled for answer, gripped her hand, and then swiftly led her along the least crowded wall of the Temple towards the door, packed with a frantic, struggling crowd of soldiers, people and priests.
The deceptive shadows thrown by the flames were kind to them; for some time no one in the whole crowd recognized the two. Everyone was reacting in a blind panic of fear from the mysterious thunders that had killed their High Priest, splintered the lamps, and caused the resultant inferno of leaping fire. But discovery was inevitable, and at last one did see the fleeing pair—one who had kept his head and was looking for them. It was Shabako. He roared:
"The stranger escapes—and the girl! There, there! Hold them!"
His imperative shout brought a measure of control to the soldiers, who were fighting to get through the doorway. They grouped uncertainly together, gripping their swords and staring wildly around. They saw, in the ruddy light of the flames, a grim-faced man pressing into them, holding in one hand a stubby black object, and in the other the arm of the sacrifice, Taia.
Wes cursed, and, forgetting that the warriors understood no English, ordered them in that tongue to make way for him. For answer, one of them leaped out at him, his sword swinging up. Craig's face set; he levelled the automatic and fired. The bullet caught the man in the midst of his leap; he spun round, his sword clanked to the floor, and he fell.
Wes fired again at the staring mob; then again; but the last time only a sharp click answered his trigger finger. He flung the gun into the thick of the hesitating warriors, swept the dead soldier's sword off the floor and pressed forward, intending to hack his way through.
But he did not have to. The other warriors were only human. They had just seen uncanny, instant death. They shrank back from the door; some even ran back from the stranger, preferring the flames to the thunder-death that he meted out. The doorway was cleared, and Craig pulled the girl through.
"Back to the left!" she gasped. "Across the bridge! Quick—Shabako comes!"
Even as they ran, they heard the Pharaoh's furious bawling as he struggled up to the door of the Temple, which he had not been able to reach for the rolling tide of fear-stricken people around him. He was shouting:
"After them—after them! They cross the bridge! Follow them, everyone! I will take the other way up and trap them! Hurry!"
He turned to the right, panting up the corridor in the direction from which he had first approached the Temple. And slowly, as they collected their dazed wits, the swarm of warriors and priests and common people followed the fleeing pair toward the bridge.
Wes Craig was tired, but the shouting pursuit lent strength to his near-exhausted limbs. Spears snaked after Taia and him from the warriors close behind; but, once across the dangerous bridge, he disregarded them long enough to hack its supports through and see it fade into the blackness beneath. "Get across now, damn you!" he yelled, and ran again after the girl's leading figure.
All now depended on their speed in reaching the top of the extinct volcano, and of that speed he was none too confident. He had gone through two strength-sapping fights in the last hour; his nerves were ragged from the constant strain, and his breath came in racking sobs. He wished passionately he had a loaded gun—even his smashed vial of Kundrenaline. The fluid would have put marvelous new life in his weary limbs.
"Hurry, Taia!" he gasped: "we must beat them! Shabako goes some other way to head us off! If only we can get to my bird-that-flies-in-the-air!"
Once again they stumbled up the difficult passage, fighting for speed with tired bodies, bodies which every twist and obstacle tried sorely. Without the girl, Wes could never have made it: she led him unerringly through the branching, gloomily-lit corridors, up flights of rickety steps, her knowledge of several short-cuts aiding measurably the speed of their progress. Tired as he was, admiration for the mighty fire of courage that burned in Taia's frail figure, and drove it forward when all physical strength was gone, never left him. For she had been through as much as he—and even more!...
They did not know it then, but the Pharaoh had made good time on the other side. As they at last neared the cup of the crater, and passed the place where the two diverging main corridors, each slanting downwards, met, they heard Shabako's shouts and the rapid clatter of his feet on the rock floor.
In a desperate sprint, they gained the flight of steps, stumbled up them, and came again into the glorious fresh cold air, and the slanting rays of the setting sun....
New life surged through Craig's body; but, whereas he ran across the uneven cup of the crater with fresh speed, the girl seamed suddenly to tire. He had taken the lead; now he went back, took her hand and pulled her forward, puzzled by her sudden exhaustion. He did not have time to question her, however, for the rapid beat of footsteps grew quickly very loud, and with a shout Shabako burst up into the open and caught sight of them.
The two went across the lip and slid down the slope of the volcano with all the haste they could. Shabako only twenty yards behind, his sword waving aloft and his dark face lit with a savage hate. And he was gaining—gaining steadily; and Taia was tiring more and more, and was becoming almost a dead weight on Wes Craig's supporting arm....
This was the last stretch, over almost the same ground the girl and her dead lover, Inaros, had covered twenty years before—and with the same pursuer behind. Again, by grace of the potent Kundrenaline, Shabako and the girl were enacting the desperate chase of years before, the chase that had ended in death for Inaros....
But there was a stricken look in Taia's eyes now.
"I am suddenly so tired, Divine One!" she gasped. She seemed hardly able to walk. Craig could not understand. Snatching a glance backwards, he saw that the Pharaoh, too, seemed to be strangely tiring—but gaining nevertheless....
He was practically carrying the suddenly exhausted girl when they came to the cleft in the ice from which he had dug her the day before. There was no time to get across, for before they could climb the other side Shabako would be on them. Wes gripped the handle of his blade. Here the last fight would have to be made.
"Go down the cleft, out of the way!" he told the girl rapidly. He did not have time to help her; he swung round just in time to parry a slash of Shabako's sword with his own.
Then Wes Craig stepped back and stared at his opponent, a peculiar look in his eyes.
It might have been merely from the force of his first swipe, or he might have slipped—but Shabako staggered drunkenly and barely avoided falling. With an oath, he came erect and once more charged at the American. It was easy for Wes to avoid his thrust; it would have been childishly easy to drive his blade through the Pharaoh's unguarded chest. But somehow Craig withheld his attack, and only peered more closely at the other. He rubbed his hand across his eyes. What he was seeing was incredible.
For Shabako's face was going a ghastly white; and, as Wes watched, he groaned, tried to raise his sword arm for another blow—and could not. He staggered, legs askew, lurched crazily forward, stumbled, and at last pitched down on the ice near the cleft.
Then his great body rolled over, arms flung wide, and lay still. And the face of Pharaoh Shabako stared unseeingly up at the darkening sky....
"Oh, God!" he cried. "The Kundrenaline!"
He had forgotten completely about the liquid he had infused into Shabako's veins. Its potency, adequate to the tremendous task of revitalizing a long-dead heart, had given out—hastened, no doubt, by the great physical exertions of the man, and made sudden by the return to the biting air of the ice fields. The liquid was only for emergency use, anyway, and supposed to serve for a period of but hours, after which the heart was intended to carry on alone.
Shabako's heart had not been able to carry on any longer....
Wes Craig was afraid to think, afraid almost to look, to see how Taia had stood the shock. Her sudden weariness became at once all too clear to him....
Slowly he turned and looked down into the cleft. He saw her—a slender, quiet little figure, flat on the ice by the body of her slain lover.
He leaped down the slippery bank and ran to her side; knelt there, and grasped her cold white hand.
The girl's eyelids were closed, but when he touched her, they flickered, and a little sigh came from her pallid lips. Then her large black eyes, opened and looked up straight into his—and when she saw him there, she smiled.
It wrenched the man's heart. "Taia!" he cried. "Taia!"
She nodded feebly, still smiling, and her lips moved. He bent close. She was whispering something. The words came to him through a great fear.
"Take me—take me, O Divine One. Take me with thee to—to thy—heaven.... Canst thou not—take—Taia?"
With her last bit of quickly ebbing strength, she pressed his hand. Then the fingers went limp in his, and her arm dropped. And her eyelids gently closed....
Wes's jaws were clenched tightly as he folded her hands across her slim body. "If thy Pharaoh had not made me drop the vial," he murmured softly, "I would again bring thee to life, Taia, and take thee to my heaven.... Though"—with a sad smile, and relapsing into English—"Times Square would not be quite the heaven you had pictured...."
He stood up. The irony of the thing gripped him, and brought a wry smile to his tight lips. The body of Inaros, her dead lover, lay at her side; and Shabako's still figure was but feet away. Once again they were all together in death. The Kundrenaline had pierced the black veil of their silent tryst and brought them back for a few fleeting hours; but even modern science could not stand long against the weight of twenty years.
And science would not have another chance with their still bodies. They would quickly be found there by the pursuing Egyptians, and would be gone, already decaying, when he could get back with another vial....
A growing murmur of nearby voices brought the silent man back to the present. Over the cleft in the ice he saw a string of priests and warriors speeding towards him. He sighed. It was time to go. There was much he wanted to learn about these people and their strange civilization, but there was no chance for it now. Perhaps on another trip, later.
He looked a last time on Taia, lying by her lover.
Then he scrambled up the other bank and ran towards the hillock behind which a sleek black monoplane with an eight hundred horse-power motor awaited him....
The thing that followed next was never forgotten by the people who worshipped Aten, the Sun God. It went down in legends; it was repeated and repeated, and it grew in the telling. It was awful; it was magical; it was godlike.
A great thunder sounded from behind the hillock of ice, a thunder that pulsed louder and louder, until the people fell down in awe, hardly daring to look. When they did, they saw a gleaming black form that stood on queer shafts of wood come gliding with the speed of the wind from behind the hillock. It straightened out on a stretch of snow, bellowing with a loudness that hammered their eardrums into numbness, and sped lightly along till the queer shafts of wood left the surface and the sleek black object soared up into the air.
Into the air! With frightened eyes they watched it wheel around, and then come roaring towards them. They fell flat again, and did not dare to look. The thunderous blast passed close over them, then dwindled and dwindled, until they ventured timidly to look up again.
They saw the shape ringed with sunset fire hurtling through the air, soaring up and up and up ... till it died to a speck ... till it disappeared into the face of the sun they worshipped as Aten....
A warrior spoke. His tones were low and awed but they all heard him.
"Truly," he whispered, "he was a god!..."
A ONE-BILLIONTH-OF-A-SECOND CAMERA
Through use of a spectroscopic camera with a shutter which operates in about one-billionth of a second, physicists at the University of California have been able to take pictures of the action of light at various periods during the course of an electrical spark which lasts only one one-hundred-thousandth of a second.
They have been able to show by photographic evidence that the magnetic field developed by the passage of an electric current across the spark gap gives the first light emitted a different appearance from that emitted a few millionths of a second later.
At the moment that the spark jumps, electricity is released in enormous quantities much as water is released by the breaking of a dam. It is this sudden release of the dammed-up current across the spark gap that causes the temporary magnetic field and the difference in the appearance of the light from the spark.
In answer to those who scoff at the possibility of a camera shutter operating in a billionth of a second, it was explained that the shutter is not a mechanical device, but operates automatically through the application of a physical law of light. In a general way, it might be said that the spark takes its own picture.
The spectroscope camera is set up at one end of a long corridor. When the electrical current jumps across the spark gap it sets up a momentary current in a set of wires running the length of the corridor and connected with the camera. This current travels toward the camera at the rate of about 186,000 miles a second.
At about the same instant that the current jumps, or an infinitesimal fraction of a second later, the light of the resulting spark starts toward the camera at a trifle more than 186,000 miles a second. It is a race between the spark current and the spark light as to which arrives first. The current jumps just before the spark appears; so it is possible for the current to reach the camera and close the shutter even before the light which is to be pictured arrives.
By lengthening the wires between the spark gap and the camera the light is allowed to arrive first. By suitable adjustment of the wiring, the shutter can be made to close during any one-billionth of a second interval during the first four ten-millionths of a second of the spark's short life.
The camera shutter consists of two Nicol prisms of Iceland spar and balsam, arranged in such a way that under ordinary conditions the light coming from the spark is stopped by polarization and prevented from reaching the camera. Between these two prisms, however, is a solution of chemicals which will depolarize the light and allow it to continue.
The wires leading from the spark gap connect with this solution. When the current jumps across the gap it races down the corridor and electrifies the solution for about one-billionth of a second. This electrification removes the depolarizing effects of the solution and light passage stops; in other words, the shutter is closed.
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Various. 2010. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, July 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31168/31168-h/31168-h.htm#Page_20
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